Pepe Álvarez (Belmonte de Miranda, Asturias, March 20, 1956) is the current general secretary of the General Union of Workers (UGT) since 2016. The union leader opens to elEconomista.es the doors of his office to talk about labor and union news.
How have you seen the beginning of the new legislature?
We have started a legislature with important issues, but I don’t know how many. Unlike the previous legislature, which not only had important issues, but also many. Now we have the melon of reducing working time open, which has a lot of depth, but where there really aren’t many options. It’s 37.5 hours. On this issue we can see if there are elements of flexibility from the point of view of application and discuss issues that have to do with this, but in reality there is a government agreement that is understood to have been voted upon with the inauguration of the President of the Government. Therefore, not only should the two parties that are in the Council of Ministers compete, but it should also involve the rest of the political formations that voted for Mr. Sánchez to preside over the Executive. I would like this measure to be agreed upon with the CEOE; I know it seems utopian, but it is the predisposition that all unions and employers must have.
Is change a priority?
In Spain we work much more than in the surrounding countries where we operate. We are a country with low productivity levels in relation to these countries, when by working so many hours we should excel from the point of view of productivity. Which means that there is no direct relationship between one thing and the other. We may think that it is only a positive measure for workers, but it must have positive elements in the general economy of the country. If that is so, it should have a large majority in the Congress of Deputies.
Now, I would like that, after the experience of the previous legislature, the parties that are not part of the majority that brought Sánchez to Moncloa, are aware that such inconsistency did not get us anywhere. If employers and unions are able to agree on a measure of these characteristics, Parliament should support it by a very large majority.
We must also address the 21st Century Labor Statute. Are you concerned that it is a consolidated text?
That would be better than nothing. The update is essential because there are contradictory rules. Adjustments have been made and we, who can claim a certain paternity to the statute more than 40 years ago, believe that it is reasonable that the change is fundamental. Making a new one does not mean that you do without everything that exists. It means that you give another articulation, that you see if any of the issues that require a specific law instead of being included in the workers’ statute, for example, everything related to freedom of association.
It seems that it will be difficult to carry out measures regarding Labor and Social Security without tripartite consensus.
Regarding the employers’ association, they must digest that we have a Government that has had a majority in Parliament, and that in July it seemed impossible that this situation could occur. We are in that transit. Now we have a period of time in which the Galician, Basque and European elections come. When all the electoral processes pass we will see that there is a horizon that will maintain the current government. At this juncture, the economic powers will have to readjust, including employers, and that will help us restore a climate that has not been seen in many years. This must allow the things and decisions made to benefit the company and the workers.
Returning to the political sphere, anyone who thinks that nothing has changed with this new parliament is wrong. We are fully aware that it has not only changed because there is a majority in which all the parties that are part of the support that was given to Mr. Sánchez count. In addition, there is a political group that is Sumar, which has left Podemos, and there is a new situation. This means that we have to be especially vigilant from the point of view of the agreements we reach, because relatively important issues can become entrenched elements.
The example is the ‘cut’ to those over 52 years of age with unemployment benefits
With the issue of subsidy for those over 52 years of age There has not been a debate only between Labor and Economy. There has also been a very tough debate between the economy and union organizations; I myself had it with former Vice President Calviño. In the phase in which we are in Spain, someone may be tempted to blame people who are unemployed because they want to, because they are comfortable or because, as the Vox advisor in Castilla y León says, they are lazy They don’t want to work. That is radically false.
The change for those over 52 years of age, without having previously done insertion work through active policies so that these people have the opportunity to work, without having first done something else that seems transcendental to me, which is to set the standard in positive. There are people who are so old that it is almost impossible for them to be able to work again. Therefore, working with that group of people seems essential to me. Going to the policy of shooting and firing a cannon and whoever gets caught, gets caught, doesn’t seem fair to me. When you reach that age, if it happens to you because you have no possibilities of employment or because you have to use the lowest conditions that you had before entering that situation, you will see your right to a pension significantly reduced.
What seems to us to be more reasonable is to move forward with the decree without this measure and for it to be discussed at a negotiation table in which we want to talk about employment and employability. If we do not want to engage in demagoguery, we cannot say that people do not want to work, but rather create the conditions so that jobs are filled by nationals. Those over 52 have to go to that debate, not so much because they are the people who are going to move. I mean that the State has responsibilities greater than the rest of the employment services, since it could establish policies and evaluate whether or not they are carried out in the regions, competent in this matter. We must put an end to this disaster that Spain has regarding employment services.
Isn’t that what the Employment Law is for?
We have an Employment Law that we have not approved and in which we have not even participated in its preparation, and that has not been the subject of much debate in the country. An employment law where the Autonomous Communities were not called, since it should be the result of an employment pact in which all interested parties participate, given that they have almost all the powers. It’s wet paper.
There are also the so-called ‘early retirements’ that some companies encourage
We have been talking about this issue for a long time and it is curious that the free market calls for state interventions in it. The companies that do this do it with their own resources., not with public resources. We are not supporters of these processes, because it is not true that all workers have the same conditions to retire. There are people who retire and do very well, even having a second working life, while others do not have that alternative.
What hurts me is that we can only do it where union organizations have weight. In places where we do not have it, there are people who become unemployed without the possibility of negotiation, neither with the State nor with Social Security. These people are the ones who then, at 62 or 63 years old, face early retirement with a brutal reduction in their pension. Seeing it only from the point of view of the end of the film seems very difficult to me. If we want to talk about this topic, let’s talk from the beginning and see why these situations occur. They are not whims, they are desires to obtain more benefits from companies. Banks, for example, have brutally outsourced part of their customer service activities.
I think this is an issue that cannot be reduced to pointing out companies as evil. They have generated beneficial situations for the country from many points of view, including the well-being of the people and the maintenance of the economy and consumption in Spain.
How do you value the Labor Reform and its effects?
When you have temporality as the norm, changing the norm immediately has some effects. The temporality in Europe is between 10 and 13 points on average in the countries of the European Union. We are a country with a very important services sector, even with a higher weight of agriculture than the rest of the countries around us, we compare ourselves in the European Union, it is a higher country. The discontinuous fixed contract is far from reaching its ceiling because there are sectors that it has not yet entered, such as agriculture. Therefore, there is still a long implementation process. We should start working with the employers; and I say with the employers, not with the Government. If we align ourselves with CEOE, then it will be much easier to implement it with the negotiation tables.
At some point, we have to evaluate the effects of the labor reform and see where we have left shadows because we begin to visualize its effects, but we could, according to the employers and CCOO, request an independent report that reflects the elements that do not work and what is could improve, to understand each other better. There are some aspects that we have been highlighting, such as part-time work, which is one of them, and which has more than one possibility of being addressed.
They have begun to speak with Social Security through the pension table. What assessments do you make on issues such as partial or early retirement?
This part of the table has been opened more at the request of the Government than of the organizations. Therefore, what The Government has to understand that we are not going to offer what we have not asked for in previous reforms. I say this because early retirements, unwanted early retirements, have already been punished enough throughout this period. So much so that we are already above the average retirement age of 65 years in Spain, taking into account that there are many people who still have the right to retire at 65, because there is a transition process and there are many people who still It has very high years of contributions. Therefore, do not look for us in that.
For us it is essential to establish the relief contract for all the productive sectors of our country. That means that I am not subject to seeing what happens next year, which is very expensive for me. Social Security counts the cost but does not count the savings that it has with a replacement contract, because it has the virtuality that one person is replaced by another and, therefore, when you calculate the cost, you have to take into account that that worker or that worker, if he or she has retired at an age, can ask the company to amortize the job instead of hiring another. That is an issue for the country because we have many companies that use retirement as an instrument to reduce staff.
Early retirement or transitions to retirement, or flexible retirement, are other instruments that we are discussing. There may be people who decide that they prefer to retire later and do so by reducing their working hours before reaching retirement age. Why deny that flexibility if it makes retirement processes easier?
What is your opinion of the situation of Spanish farmers in France?
It seems reasonable to me that there are these mobilizations and, frankly, it seems rude to me that someone tries to take this to a nationalism of their country against the neighboring country. This point, which somehow appears in France, where Ségolène Royal is the Marine Le Pen, in this case, is that of demagoguery and lack of shame. European farmers must be protected because their protests make perfect sense and to do so we must ensure that they compete on equal terms. In Spain we have made the food chain law and the Government of Spain has to provide means to ensure compliance. Because it is essential that selling at a loss is not allowed.